By Gizaw Legesse
What is happening recently in Ethiopia is difficult to describe. To keep counting number of deaths and the way people are killed is becoming unbearable. However, lately, the name Jawar Mohammed keeps coming at every corner of mainstream and social media, followed by both good and bad perspectives. We observe posts, comments, debates, suspicions and concerns about Jawar Mohammed. I understand the concern. Because he has been figured as an Oromo nationalist and an activist who devoted almost half of his lifetime defending and advocating for the interest of the Oromo people. Moreover, the couple of interviews Jawar had since he returned to Ethiopia are being quoted and interpreted in such a way that paints a skeptic opinion on his future agenda.
I knew Jawar Mohammed (not in person) when he was in his early 20s while he was persistently writing interesting articles. Especially, his debate-articles with Professor Messay Kebede caught my attention. Their back-and-forth debate was in English, but the late Awramba Times weekly had been publishing them in Amharic for its readers in Ethiopia. The debate was not only scholarly, but also far-fetched and comprehensive. Anyone who read Jawar’s articles at that time can’t find ethnic or nationalist sense that could lead to a concern – in fact, he was critically criticizing the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a longtime Oromo nationalist party that fought and advocated for freedom and self-determination of Oromo people. Jawar frequently wrote how OLF lost their fight and why their strategy was outdated. Those criticisms have paid him with insults, hates and long years of campaigns against him by OLF supporters until recently. And anyone who closely follows the internal politics among Oromos knows more than me on the matter. It was not until Awramba Times made an exclusive interview with him that many people learned who Jawar Mohammed is and how very young he was.
Trust is a big word, and I don’t expect anyone to trust Jawar Mohammed, especially not for the sake of “Medemer”. However, I deeply believe that we should give Jawar at least the benefit of the doubt at this particular time. And I think there are a minimum of three reasons to do so – which I will elaborate below.
- He took a risk
When Jawar came back to Ethiopia, he took a risk. I am not talking about a risk of losing his life, rather losing his power base.
I think it was the Al Jazeera “AJStreem” show that boldly manifested his path for the struggle. I believe what he mentioned on that show has accelerated the results he and the people achieved today. Please hear me out, I know many people still object the declaration he made at the time. He was a guest on the show to talk about the grievances, imprisonments, and deaths in Oromia. Then (all of a sudden) he was asked, “Jawar, are you an Oromo First, or Ethiopian First?” His response was loud and clear, “I’m an Oromo First.”
One can debate all night on this statement, but how can you question what a person feels? How can we deprive a person his priority of belongingness, and how can we understand why he (or the people he represents) felt like that for years? But the person was Jawar Mohammed, and the thing he just declared shocked many, especially those who advocate or adhere “Ethiopianism”. Then a storm-campaign and opposition started to fall upon him. ‘Jawar said he is not an Ethiopian’, that is how his statement was interpreted. But he never said that. In fact, he was telling us his struggle prioritizes the people of Oromia, which was a practical strategy that produced a practical fruit.
A few years later (around a year ago), when the fall of EPRDF becomes inevitable, Oromo activists, political parties, and scholars – most of them with different point of views – gathered in Europe for a possibility of setting aside differences and unifying the Oromo struggle. One participant of the meeting made a statement which seems to be a call for disintegration of Ethiopia. Jawar, who organized the meeting in collaboration with others, was asked on VOA Amharic to comment on that particular statement which was being fanned on social media. His response was something like this, “we called everyone, and everyone has the right to bring their views on the table . . . But, of course, an Ethiopia that does not benefit and protect the interest of the Oromo people must be disintegrated.”
By this time, of course, Jawar has already secured his power base – Oromia. He has also long ago known it is only through the people of Oromia (especially the youth) that dismantling OPDO, as well as TPLF which controls OPDO, succeeds. However, his response to VOA Amharic led the concern and suspicion about him to continue to increase, while it further strengthens his control over Oromia.
Now Jawar Mohammed is here, in Ethiopia. He said, in one video interview while preparing for his trip, “We have been teaching our youth how to topple down a government and they did. But we need to teach them now how to build a country.” That seems to be his main reason to come back to Ethiopia. Jawar is no longer an “Oromo First” guy. The slogan “Down Down Woyane” was a work of his, but now he is making efforts to make the transition inclusive of the very groups that the slogan was written for. He is currently saying, without them in it, the transition can’t lead us to a unified and democratic Ethiopia. This has become scary to many people and activists, especially from the Amhara region. But it is (or will be) equally confusing for Oromos, especially the youth (Qeerroos) who know TPLF as enemy of Oromo people.
There are thousands of people who think the change in Ethiopia is only of one ethnic by another. There are also millions in Oromia who could think this is the time for Oromos. Jawar was in fact struggling to empower the Oromo people. His coming to Ethiopia, on the other hand, is to play a role in giving power to all Ethiopians. If he succeeds, his power base will be all over Ethiopia. But if he fails, or even by the fact that he tried, he may lose his current power base, which is Oromia. Oromos could start calling him a traitor. He could be accused of sleeping with the enemy. By advocating a pardon for “Killer Woyanes”, He could become the most hated person in Oromia (and also in Amhara). That is the risk he took – for a greater Ethiopia. So why not give him the benefit of the doubt, a chance to show his end goals?
- He is the “Peacemaker”
The power struggle, credibility competition, and peoples’ confusion is to the highest in our country at this time. While one seeks full transition, the other still fights for status quo or becomes too proud to be equal. At the same time, we the people are very busy in identifying who endorses the transition and who does not.
While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was in the United States and a few hours after he made speech to the Ethiopian Diasporas in Los Angeles, Jawar wrote a very short Facebook post that disturbed me more than ever: “Please pray for Ethiopia!” To read this statement from a person who led the public protests and achieved to turn a government upside-down, was very disturbing. One can only understand there are still plenty of ashes unsettled, though celebrations are taking place everywhere. TPLF can’t accept it has lost the battle and its old guards are being humiliated; a new Amhara nationalist sentiment is being incubated; and the tension between OPDO and the last wing of OLF was about to burst. The first two situations still continued, but the last one is beginning to calm down and Jawar has his hand on it.
This is the time our internal politics needs a peacemaker. Believe it or not, Jawar is now playing this role. Workneh Gebeyehu, Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, and Lemma Megerssa, President of Oromia region, went last week to Asmara, Eritrea, to personally negotiate with Dawud Ibsa, the leader of the last OLF wing. An agreement is reached between them where Dawud’s OLF would come back to Ethiopia to continue its struggle peacefully. And Jawar has played a role in bringing the two sides to their senses. Bear in mind that this OLF wing is an open enemy of Jawar Mohammed.
His current role as a peace maker has continued to Tigray; he is planning to sit down with officials, activists, and the youth in Tigray to discuss options and to understand their concern. Not few months ago he himself called TPLF old guards killers and must pay for what they did. Now he invites them to come out of the shadow and be part of the transition. Jawar also condemned how these men are being cornered and named, including in subsequent speeches of PM Abiy Ahmed.
At this juncture, Ethiopia needs a peacemaker, and she can’t find a better influential person than Jawar Mohammed. Anyone with a hidden agenda could only be benefited in violence and crisis. But if peace is achieved, only the people benefit and any agendas can shine out to be judged by the people peacefully. That is why we need to give the benefit of the doubt to the peacemaker.
- He has the will and the power
With all the peacemaking, negotiations, and compromises are happening, there still exists a force that attempts to drag the transition backwards. To keep the transition going and to create an honest awareness of the ongoing situation to the public, the country needs someone or institution or structure that has the will and the power. Violence, killings, rumor instigated mob justice, insecurity led actions and reactions, and generally symptoms of lawlessness being observed currently in our Ethiopia needs an immediate and a bottom-up approach of governance structuring.
The structure Jawar has built for years, the relation he has with the youth can be helpful in many sides. To start with, it can be used to prevent the government from turning to a dictatorship by installing submissiveness for rule of law. But, most importantly, trust on the new democratic Ethiopia can be channeled through these kinds of networks. Moreover, peace and patience can also be preached using Jawar’s strategy, and he is indeed offering his service. Though this mission of his, that is developing a consensus and understanding among the youth that the transition does not only belongs to a particular ethnic group but to all Ethiopians, could become the most challenging phase of his struggle. Hence, we shouldn’t only give him the chance to serve, but we all need to support him and contribute to the cause.
I think now all of us are uncertain. There are some people who are eagerly awaiting to proclaim our Ethiopia as ‘Failed State’. That is why we should give Jawar ‘the benefit of the doubt’. Urban Dictionary explains the term impressively, “To give someone the benefit of the doubt is to default to the belief that their intentions are honest, and not assume malice when there is uncertainty or doubt surrounding the circumstances.”
Good Luck, Ethiopia!